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Historical Handfasting
Draft Edition

by Sharon L. Krossa
Last updated 13 May 2006  

This is a draft edition! It is not as complete as I would like it, and not all of the footnotes and references have been included as yet. However, what is included is accurate to the best of my knowledge, and all quotes from sources are accurate to the text of the cited source. Since there doesn't appear to be any good web page with reliable information about historical handfasting (as opposed to information about modern Neopagan handfasting or presentations of myth as historical fact), I have decided an incomplete article on historical handfasting is better than none.


Marriage

Late Middle Ages to the Reformation

In order to understand historical handfasting, one must first understand marriage. Marriage in late medieval Scotland, like marriage just about everywhere else in late medieval Western Christendom (that is, anywhere they looked to the Bishop of Rome as head of the Christian church), could be formed two ways:

  1. Exchanging consents in the present tense (I take you to be my husband, etc.)

  2. Exchanging consents in the future tense (I will take you to be my husband, etc.) followed at any time (days, years) by sexual intercourse on the strength of that promise. The logic here was that after a future promise, sex was considered to amount to present tense consent, and present tense consent made marriage.

Note that for either method of late medieval marriage, for the marriage to be valid it did not matter if there were any witnesses or not. Witnesses only made it easier to prove. It did not matter if a priest was present or not. It did not matter if the marriage was blessed, or a mass followed, or not. It did not matter if banns had been posted in advance or not. It did not even matter if the marriage was consumated or not. A couple who exchanged consents in the present tense in the back woods with only squirrels for witnesses, against the wishes of their parents, and never had sexual intercourse was just as legally and bindingly married by the law of both church and state as a couple married by the Pope himself with the proud parents looking on and a child nine months later.

The "consent made marriage" theory held from somewhere in the decades around 1200 onwards until the Reformation, so the law (if not the understanding of your peasant in the street) was pretty clear by the 14th century. Note that in the late medieval period marriage was primarily regulated by canon law, not civil law, and so was essentially consistent across Roman Catholic Europe (Brundage). (Laws connected to marriage, like property law, and various practical laws connected to marriages after their making, did vary across Europe; but what made a valid marriage — consent — was the same everywhere.)

Another thing to note about this consent and consent alone theory of marriage is that it came from the Roman Catholic church. It was formulated by Roman Catholic canon lawyers and promolgated by Roman Catholic Popes. In fact, the consent theory was a bit of a hard sell because it went against earlier common ideas about marriage — many of which had been around since pre-Christian and early Christian times — ideas such as parental consent being required, a marriage not being completed or binding until it was consumated, and so on (Brundage). It was the late medieval Christian church that was telling secular authorities that couples who married in clandestinely against the wishes of their parents were, nevertheless, validly and bindingly married.

Now, what I'm talking about here is marriage, not betrothal. The above is what made marriage. The usual terminology is that marriages by words in the present made "in the face of the church" (church marriages in Scotland & England were usually done on the front porch of the church rather than inside) were called "regular" marriages, and anything else (present consents not done in face of the church with priest et al. and any kind of future consent followed by sexual intercourse) were called "irregular" or "clandestine" marriages (no matter how publicly they occurred).

In Scotland, there was a third type of marriage recognized, marriage "by habit and repute", but this was more evidence of an existing marriage rather than a way to create a new marriage. Marriage by habit and repute was established when a couple lived together as if married and presented themselves to society as being married — but any credible admission by the couple that they were not actually married could prevent establishing via habit and repute that there had been a marriage. Having the courts recognize a marriage by habit and repute was how a couple (or the authorities, or a surviving spouse or the couple's heirs after one or both partners died) could establish that they really were married even though they had no record or witnesses to the marriage. In a period when couples could marry simply by exchanging consents without any witnesses, having a mechanism to prove such marriages was important.

If, in late medieval Scotland or elsewhere in Roman Catholic Europe, a couple were married, they were married for life. Once a couple was validly married, they stayed married till the day one of them died. The only way out was to prove that they were never legally married in the first place — get the marriage "annulled". That means, one or both of them were either too young, too closely related to each other, impotent at the time of their marriage, insane at the time of marriage, or already married (or betrothed) to someone else at the time of their marriage. Even if they were too young, if they didn't stop living together as man and wife when they became of age (12 for women, 14 for men), then they were considered legally married from then on (continuing to live together was considred to amount to present consent). It is not until the Reformation (which officially occured in Scotland in August 1560) that divorce and remarriage became a possibility. (However, one will find, in late medieval documents, references to people being "divorced" — this was referring to a couple either having their marriage annulled or else being what we would modernly call "legally seperated". In the case of legal seperation, the couple was still considered to be married to one another, and they could not marry other partners.)

Although all that was neccessary was for a valid marriage in the late Middle Ages was for the couple to exchange consents, from the 13th century onwards, usually a normally conducted marriage consisted of:

  1. Betrothal (formal ceremony where couple exchanged future consents and marriage contracts were officially agreed)

  2. Proclamation of the Banns (public announcements of the forthcoming wedding at the church)

  3. Consents in present tense (wedding) followed by clerical blessing/mass

  4. Start of living together

All of which, especially numbers 1 and 3, could be seperated by some length of time. There is some variation of the constituant parts over the centuries, but the one consitent factor is that mutual consent was what made a marriage — the traditions and ceremonies surounding this consent did vary over time.

Still, although they were valid and binding, the church did not like clandestine marriages — marriages that were not celebrated publicly in face of the church — they caused all sorts of problems. So, while both church and civil law recognized these clandestine marriages as legal and binding, the church also regarded them as a sin. And the church did its best to get couples who had married clandestinely to marry again in face of the church — even though they recognized the first marriage as legal and binding and productive of legitimate children. So here you have this situation: couples who are legally married, recognized as married by the church, but still in hot water and being punished by the church for not getting married the right way and being pressured to get married again in the church.

Note that the reason there was such a thing as clandestine marriages was not because there weren't enough priests to go around causing a need for some kind of marriage that didn't require a priest until a priest could get to an area and marry people properly. Again, clandestine marriages are a direct result of Roman Catholic canon law theory about what was the essential act that made marriage — it had nothing to do with any lack of priests. For one thing, there was no lack of priests. Pre-Reformation Scotland, even Gaelic Scotland, like the rest of Roman Catholic Europe, was just crawling with priests. Anyone who wanted to find a priest for a proper marriage ceremony in face of the church could do so easily. The legality of clandestine marriages did not arise out of practical necessity, but rather out of pure impractical theory.

So why did people get married clandestinely? Essentially for the same reasons people modernly run away and get married in Las Vegas or Reno, Nevada, rather than staying home and getting married in a big church wedding. It was easier, especially if there were those who might object to a marriage. It was quicker. It was cheaper. And, for the unscrupulous, it was easier to deny later.

The Reformation to 1940

Then, in the early 16th century, came the Reformation, and some Protestant countries changed their marriage laws, requiring a priest or minister and the proper form for valid marriage, while some did not. Divorce gets thrown in here, too. And sometimes you had a divergence — with civil law and (Protestant) church law in some regions having different rules for what made a valid marriage.

Then, in 1563, came the Council of Trent, which changed Roman Catholic canon law to require a priest and the proper form for a valid marriage. In Catholic countries, a simple exchange of present tense consents and an exchange of future consents followed by sexual intercourse were no longer valid ways to get married.

But because the Scottish Reformation had happened before Trent (1560) yet the Scots didn't get around to reforming marriage laws until after Trent, in 1567, the Trent reforms did not affect Scotland and the Scottish Protestants did not copy the Catholic Trent reforms for their new Protestant state. So both Scottish civil law and the Protestant Kirk kept essentially the same laws regarding what makes marriage as before the Reformation — consent in present tense or consent in future tense followed any time later by sexual intercourse — the only changes being to permit divorce & remarriage and to reduce the forbidden degrees of consanguity.

But the Protestant Kirk was even less happy with clandestine marriages than the Catholic church had been, and waffles all over the place in Kirk session records and elsewhere about recognizing clandestine marriages as legal and talking about them as "fornication" or both — but in any case insisting, as the Catholic church had, on clandestinely married couples getting married again the "right way" and punishing them for not having done it the right way to begin with (even when they recognized them as already legally and bindingly married).

Over time, the civil and (Protestant) church laws on marriage in Scotland diverged — for example, by the 18th century the Kirk no longer recognized marriage by future tense consents followed by sexual intercourse even though the civil authorities did (Leneman). But in civil law, the basic marriage laws remained the same until 1940 (when the 1939 act reforming marriage law took effect).

Betrothal

In the Middle Ages and first part of the Early Modern period a betrothal was a much more serious and binding thing than a modern engagement. In fact, in the late Middle Ages one impediment that could prevent a person from validly marrying was an existing prior betrothal to someone else. Ending a betrothal in a such a way as to leave one free to marry elsewhere required more than just one party changing their mind and moving on.

In a normally conducted betrothal and marriage, the betrothal was not the point at which the couple (or their parents or guardians) first decided they would get married. Rather, it was a formal ceremony where the couple exchanged promises (preferably in front of witnesses, often including a priest) to marry in the future (plighted their troth) and where the marriage contracts were finally agreed upon.

Handfasting

Historical Handfasting

Historically, in late medieval and early modern Scotland (and northern England), "handfasting" was a the normal term used for "betrothal" — that is, for the ceremony of exchanging future consents to marriage and agreeing to marriage contracts. The origins of this usage are explained by Anton (90-2):

Among the people who came to inhabit Northumbria and the Lothians, as well as among other Germanic peoples, the nuptials were completed in two distinct phases. There was first the betrothal ceremony and later the giving-away of the wife to the husband. The betrothal ceremony was called the beweddung in Anglo-Saxon because in it the future husband gave weds or sureties to the woman's relatives, initially for payment to them of a suitable price for his bride but later for payment to her of suitable dower and morning-gift. The parties plighted their troth and the contract was sealed, like any other contract, by a hand-shake. This joining of hands was called a handfæstung in Anglo-Saxon, and the same word is found in different forms in the German, Swedish and Danish languages. In each it means a pledge by the giving of the hand. ....

The joining of the hands became a feature of betrothals in Scotland and in England during the medieval period. A Scottish protocol narrates that on 24 July 1556, the Vicar of Aberdour 'ministrat and execut the office anent the handfasting betwix Robert Lawder younger of the Bass and Jane Hepburn docter to Patrick Errl Botwell in thir vordis following: "I Robert Lawder tak thow Jane Hepburne to my spousit wyf as the law of the Haly Kirk schawis and thereto I plycht thow my trewht and syklyk I the said Jane Hepburne takis you Robert Lawder to my spousit husband as the law of the Haly Kirk schaws and therto I plycht to thow my trewth," and execut the residew of the said maner of handfasting conforme to the consuetud usit and wont in syk casis' What this 'consuetude' was may be gathered from a protocol on the sponsalia of David Boswell of Auchinleck and Janet Hamilton, daughter of the Earl of Arran. After the consents had been exchanged 'the curate with the consent of both parties with their hands joined betrothed the said David and Janet who took oath as is the custom of the Church'. In fact, the ceremony of joining hands became so closely associated with betrothals in medieval times that in Scotland, and apparently the north of England, the ordinary term for a betrothal was a handfasting. The use of the term in this sense persisted in Elgin as late as 1635.

"Protocol" here refers to a protocol book of a notary public — that is, the book that a notary public used to keep a record of all the documents he wrote. Also, in the quotes above "spousit" means "betrothed" (see the CSD s.v. "spouse"). (Compare to the English usage of "betrothed wife" to refer to one's betrothed future wife.)

The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST) gives several examples that illustrate that handfasting in late medieval and early modern Scotland referred to betrothal (s.v. handfast):

"Gif..the said dispensacione cum nocht hayme within the said tyme..the said John the Grant is bundin..to caus thame be handfast and put togiddir..for mariage to be completit; 1520 Grant Chart 64. Ib. 65. Becaus..many within this toun ar handfast, as thai call it, and maid promeis of mariage a lang space bygane,.., and as yit vill nocht mary and coimpleit that honorable band,.., but lyis and continewis in manifest fornicatioun [etc.]; 1562 Aberd. Eccl. Rec. II.

Note that because handfasting involved an exchange of future tense consents to marry, if a couple was handfasted/betrothed, and then had sex on the basis of that handfasting/betrothal, they were then no longer handfasted/betrothed, but married — legally, bindingly, for life, married. But if they didn't have sex and didn't exchange present tense consents, then they weren't married. Handfasting/betrothal could result in marriage, whether by subsequent exchange of present tense consents or by subsequent sex, but it also could result in no marriage but only if there had been no sex at all. (So in the 1562 quote above, the betrothed couples who "continewis in manifest fornicatioun" are actually legally married, but the church leaders are insisting that they get married again, this time properly in church.)

Though the civil law remained essentially the same, the cultural customs surrounding marriage did change over the nearly four centuries between the Scottish Reformation and 1940. Of relevance to the issue of handfasting, in regularly formed marriages formal betrothal ceremonies (handfastings) faded away; it would appear that by the late 17th century, they were no longer practiced, or at the very least hand changed in nature and terminlogy such that they were no longer called "handfasting" (Leneman, c. 3).

It is also worth noting that the verb "handfast" and verbal noun "handfasting" in Scotland in the late 17th century were used to mean "to enter into an engagement of service" and "the joining of hands in engaging an employee", respectively (DOST, s.vv. handfast, handfasting).

Mythical Handfasting

Well after formal betrothals called "handfastings" had ceased to be actually practiced in Scotland, a curious myth arose in the late 18th century that "handfasting" referred a trial marriage of a year and a day after which the partners could either marry permanently or part freely and that this kind of "handfasting" had been practiced in former times but not currently.

A.E. Anton, in "'Handfasting' in Scotland", very thoroughly looked into the myth of handfasting being trial marriage and discovered that the myth that handfasting in Scotland was any kind of marriage rather than betrothal could not be traced any further back than the late 18th century, to Thomas Pennant in his Tour in Scotland (London, 1790) recounting his tour of 1772, where he writes, as related by Anton (100-1):

Pennant says: 'Among the various customs now obsolete the most curious was that of handfisting, in use about a century past. In the upper part of Eskdale ... there was an annual fair where multitudes of each sex repaired. The unmarried looked out for mates, made their engagements by joining hands, or by handfisting, went off in pairs, cohabited until the next annual return of the fair, appeared there again and then were at liberty to declare their approbation or dislike of each other. If each party continued constant, the handfisting was renewed for life....' Pennant attributed the custom to the fewness of the clergy there in Popish times but, as Chalmers points out in his Caledonia, Pennant 'who was not very studious of facts when he wanted embellishment ... did not know ... how many more clergymen existed under the old than under the new establishment'.

Further, Pennant seems unaware that a clergyman was completely unneccessary for legal marriage in Scotland before the Reformation (just as one was unneccessary after the Reformation).

This is the first association of "handfasting" with supposed trial marriages of a year and a day, and even it is described as being "now obsolete" and "in use about a century past" and only occuring in one small place in the border regions. Compare this second hand rumour about practices a century earlier (recorded by a man "who was not very studious of the facts when he wanted embellishment") to the facts that are known about historical handfasting and marriage in the Middle Ages and first part of the Early Modern period as discussed above. The known facts of handfasting and marriage are incompatible with Pennant's rumour. Yet it is to Pennant's rumour that all subsequent elaborations of the myth of handfasting as trial marriage can be traced.

The next reference to "handfasting" as trial marriage is in The [Old] Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-99), v. 12, pp. 614-5, in a section dealing with Eskdale in Dumfries, which follows closely Pennant's description:

... In mentioning remarkable things in this parish, it would be wrong to pass over in silence, that piece of ground at the meeting of the Black and White Esks, which was remarkable in former times for an annual fair that had been held there time out of mind, but which is now entirely laid aside. At that fair, it was the custom for the unmarried persons of both sexes to choose a companion, according to their liking, with whom they were to live till that time next year. This was called hand-fasting, or hand in fist. If they were pleased with each other at that time, then they continued together for life; if not, they separated, and were free to make another choice as at the first. The fruit of their connexion (if there were any) was always attached to the disaffected person. In later times, when this part of the country belonged to the Abbacy of Melrose, a priest, to whom they gave the name Book i' bosom (either because he carried in his bosom a bible, or perhaps, a register of the marriages), came from time to time to confirm the marriages. This place is only a small distance from the Roman encampment of Castle-o'er. May not the fair have been first instituted when the Romans resided there? and may not the "hand-fasting" have taken its rise from their manner of celebrating marriage, ex usu, by which, if a woman, with the consent of her parents or guardians, lived with a man for a year, without being absent for 3 nights, she became his wife? Perhaps, when Christianity was introduced, this form of marriage may have been looked upon as imperfect, without confirmation by a priest, and, therefore, one may have been sent from time to time for this purpose.

Regarding the fanciful speculation about connections to Roman law, Anton (101) notes "Unfortunately for this theory, usus was obsolete in Roman law by the time the Romans came to Scotland."

The Old Statistical Account apparently adds the detail of the children being "always attached to the disaffected person". But as with Tennant, this custom is described as "now entirely laid aside" and also associated with the Roman Catholic era of Scottish history.

Sir Walter Scott is the next to promote the idea that "handfasting" was a form of trial marriage. In his 1820 novel The Monastery, the character Avenel says (Anton, 89, quoting Scott, ch. 25):

'We Bordermen ... take our wives, like our horses, upon trial. When we are handfasted, as we term it, we are man and wife for a year and a day: that space gone by, each may choose another mate, or at their pleasure, may call the priest to marry them for life—and this we call handfasting.'

But The Monastery is a supernatural historical romance set in the mid-16th century, prior to the Scottish Reformation of 1560. (See The Walter Scott Digital Archive's synopsis of the plot.) So when Scott has his character talking about supposed "handfasting" as a trial marriage for a year and a day, he too is at most claiming it was something that happened long, long ago and making no claim that it was practiced in his own day. Like earlier sources for the myth, Scott had no personal knowledge of such a practice. Indeed, it is most likely he first read about it in Pennant's Tour in Scotland, and/or in The Old Statistical Account , and thought it would be a neat thing to include in his novel, along with ghosts and other fanciful things.

Later writers, both novelists and historians, take up the myth, some adding new elements to it. For example, the 19th century historian W. F. Skene, in The Highlanders of Scotland (1837), rather than having The Old Statistical Account's description of children born to a handfasted couple "always being attached to the disaffected person" if the couple parts unwed states that conception of a child automatically makes the marriage permanent. Anton (89) reports Skene's version as:

... if during the period of trial 'the lady became a mother, or proved to be with child, the marriage became good in law, even although no priest had performed the marriage ceremony in due form'. He adds that 'the highlanders themselves draw a very strong distinction between bastard sons and the sons of their handfast unions, whom they considered legitimate'.

Note also that Skene has moved "handfasting" as trial marriage from the Borders to the Highlands. John Cameron in Celtic Law (1937) expands on this, claiming "handfasting to be one of the few Celtic customs surviving in Scots law." (Anton, 89) Acceptance of this myth as historical fact has been widespread; it has been reported in academic works of history, anthropology, and legal history (Anton, 89). Decades after Anton's 1958 article was published, one can still find even some Scottish historians erroneously repeating the myth as factual (though to the best of my knowledge only among those who have not examined the evidence).

Neopagan Handfasting

So by the mid-to-late 20th century, the myth of "handfasting" as an ancient pagan Celtic practice of trial marriage for a year and a day after which, if there are no children, the couple may choose to part freely or else marry permanently, was a well established and well known idea. At this stage, in the late 20th century, or perhaps somewhat earlier, there was a new permutation. Followers of various Neopagan religions, believing the myth to be an actual pre-Christian practice, adopted the form of the myth into their own modern religious practices and ceremonies.

Over time, various Neopagan religious groups altered and added to the details. In some modern traditions the length of time became variable rather than a year and a day. In some the temporary union became renewable mulitple times rather than a one time choice of marry or part. Unaware of the true historical origins of the term "handfasting" (that is, as a term signifying a handshake), the word was reanalyzed and re-interpreted as signifying that a cord had been tied around the couple's hands or wrists as part of the ceremony, so this feature was incorporated into the modern ceremonies. At some stage, some groups began to use "handfasting" as a synonym for legal marriage rather than for religiously recognized but legally unrecognized temporary sexual unions. And in recent years, some groups, coming almost full circle, started to use "handfasting" to mean a formal engagement to be married in the future (though this may be simply a variation on the temporary sexual union that may lead to marriage theme).

I have not yet tracked down the earliest evidence for modern Neopagan handfasting, nor the earliest evidence for each alteration and addition to the new traditions. I would welcome references to published books or articles that contain such evidence, especially the first published work that refers to each Neopagan handfasting development. I would also be interested in first hand witness accounts from those who observed or participated in early Neopagan handfastings (from before at least 1983); oral history may prove more informative if published references occured significantly later the start of the practices.

Thus Neopagan handfastings, though very real and legitimate modern religious practices, are still quite different than historical handfasting as practiced in the late Middle Ages, which was Christian betrothal.

Summary

There are three distinct meanings, and three different eras, for "handfasting":

From the Middle Ages through the early 17th century, something contemporaries called "handfasting" was actually practiced. It was a formal betrothal to be married and occured in a Christian context.

From the late 18th century through the early 20th century, "handfasting" was mistakenly believed to be a kind of trial marriage for a year and a day. No contemporaries practiced it, rather, it was erroneously believed to have been practiced long ago in the past.

From the late 20th century, in addition to many people continuing to mistakenly believe that in the past "handfasting" was a kind of trial marriage for a year and a day, "handfasting" has been used by various Neopagans to refer to their own modern religious practices ranging from temporary unions to legal marriages.


Bibliography

Anton Anton, A. E. "'Handfasting' in Scotland." The Scottish Historical Review 37, no. 124 (October 1958): 89-102.
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CSD Robinson, Mairi, ed. The Concise Scots Dictionary. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1987. Polygon hardcover: Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk - Barnes&Noble; Polygon paperback: Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk - Barnes&Noble; Chambers paperback (used): Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk; AUP hardcover (used): Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk - Barnes&Noble; Crown hardcover (used): Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk - Barnes&Noble; MacMillan hardcover (used): Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk - Barnes&Noble; MacMillan paperback (used): Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk - Barnes&Noble; AUP leather cover (used): Amazon.com - Amazon.co.uk - Barnes&Noble
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Smout Smout, T. C. "Scottish Marriage, Regular and Irregular, 1500-1940." In Marriage and Society: Studies in the Social History of Marriage, edited by R. B. Outhwaite, 204-36. London: Europa Publications Limited, 1981.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank all the people I've discussed and debated handfasting with, both in person and over the internet — these enounters have been invaluable to the process of writing this article!


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